Originally a concept designed to (literally) ape the plastic, manufactured bands prevalent on the likes of MTV in the late 1990s, Gorillaz became a global sensation – one of the biggest acts of the last two decades, virtual or otherwise, even threatening to eclipse the success of frontman Damon Albarn’s other arena-filling band. As time ticked on from 2010’s Plastic Beach (and its tour companion piece The Fall) and rumours of a major falling-out between co-creators Albarn and Jamie Hewlett came to the surface, it seemed unlikely that we would ever hear from 2-D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel again. However, with tensions resolved, and the release of Humanz this year, Gorillaz are back in a big way and they swung into Brighton for the first night in the UK leg of their global tour.
As the lights dropped, and the distinctive Dawn of the Dead sample from ‘M1 A1’ echoed around the room, anticipation for what was to come filled the room. The show was split into three distinct acts, with the more overtly hip-hop Humanz element ring-fenced in the middle of the set, bookended by classics from across their back catalogue. Albarn stalked across the front of the stage in the opening tracks, with his live touring band in shadows for the early parts. The band were always the creative outlet for Albarn when he tired of genre limitations on recording life with Blur, and the set reflected that pigeonhole-defying approach. ’19-2000’ was given a slower, funkier edge while the glam rock stomp of ‘Every Planet We Reach Is Dead’ was elevated by the stunning voices from the superb gospel choir that now form part of the band.
More reserved than when performing with Blur, Albarn was plainly happy to slip into the shadows when the guest slots started – and there was an impressive amount of stars happy to come along for the ride. Pos and Dave from De La Soul popped up twice during the night, plus there were fun and energising cameos from Vince Staples, Peven Everett, Bootie Brown (of The Pharcyde fame) and finally Little Simz. The only slight mis-step was ‘Saturnz Barz’ – with Albarn off-stage and Popcaan only represented by a video image, it was essentially just the band playing along to a pre-recorded video. Generally though, the middle hour was packed with highlights. ‘Dirty Harry’ was transformed into a club banger by Bootie Brown, as was ‘Garage Palace’, which had the entire audience pogoing under direction by Little Simz.
Only occasionally did Albarn take centre stage, whether it was with a beautiful rendition of ‘On Melancholy Hill’ or the brash lo-fi punk of, well, ‘Punk’. This ability to slip in and out of the limelight anonymously must be a constant delight to Albarn. Indeed on Humanz he is barely present for much of the time. Gorillaz has now almost become a kind of arts movement, a showcase for different artists and styles which will appeal to his constant quest for the new and unexplored. Luckily for the fans, this is still combined with an unerring ear for melody and pop hook – an area where he is surely amongst his generation’s most under-appreciated talents. As the irresistible funk of ‘Stylo’ filled the room before the maniacal laugh heralded a version of ‘Feel Good Inc.’, it felt more than just good, driving the crowd wild.
As a beautifully pitched encore began with a transcendent ‘Hong Kong’, there was no sign of the band being in any rush to exit. Of course, ‘Clint Eastwood’ proved to be the biggest moment of the evening, but tonight showed that the ongoing evolution of Gorillaz from that early milestone is continuing to be as exciting as ever. This was a concert containing some of the best pop songs of the 21st century, but was also far more than just a gig – it was the complete package. A night that held a wonderful level of theatricality, a band of singers, rappers and musicians of the highest quality and perfectly pitched guest spots. A level of control to the ebb and flow to the evening that few can master, all held together exquisitely and invisibly by the musical creativity and leadership of Albarn. In a year that has contained many superb shows in Brighton, Gorillaz raised the bar one notch further.